In France, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, millions pledged support to free speech, but in the UK Bristol police slipped up when their most senior officer inadvertently admitted to the BBC he had intervened to ensure a local community worker was blacklisted (and made unemployable) merely for writing articles on social problems. In due course the local version of Indymedia, a respected online news channel, was forced to close down. This all happened because police failed to locate the whereabouts of a suspect – nicknamed the ‘badger’ – whom they believe to be a member of an anarchist group responsible for a series of attacks on police and public property. In frustration Bristol’s ‘keystone cops’ vented their frustration on soft targets, such as a community bookshop, and seized computer property and raided homes. But instead of being cowered by this intimidatory activity, around 20 local community activists, dressed as badgers, organised an ‘occupation’ of the local CID headquarters (see picture above).
Note: to see an update on this story, see Comments section after the Statement at the end of the article by the victims of this intimidation.
Towards the end of last year we reported on the frustrations of Avon and Somerset Constabulary in locating the perpetrator or perpetrators, associated with an anarchist group, of a series of spectacular attacks on local targets – property of one sort or another. However, that frustration eventually spilled over and the police, adopting highly unethical if not illegal practices, targeted the wider, alternative community in Bristol in a crass attempt to intimidate members of that community and at the same time use the opportunity to gather information via digital snooping.
Last December, in an interview with the BBC, Chief Superintendent Julian Moss of Avon and Somerset Constabulary made a spectacular and embarrassing gaff when he admitted: “We have been round to places of work to discuss anarchism and to understand the community better. I think that is legitimate.” The question that was put to Moss by the interviewer was in connection to officers accused of carrying out a campaign of intimidation against Bristol based community activists, including raids on homes.
The most serious offence committed by these officers involved the targeting of Jon (full name withheld) who is a member of Solidarity Federation, a national organisation that offers support to workers and communities taking industrial action. Two years back Jon received an email at work requiring he attend a meeting with his boss. At that meeting Jon was informed that the police had paid a visit to ask that his work contract be terminated. The boss explained how the police had described Jon as an ‘extremist’ and so should not work with children (Jon’s job involved helping young people with emotional difficulties). The police gave the boss so-called evidence to back up their accusation. This ‘evidence’ was merely copies of articles they claimed Jon wrote – articles that were about prison conditions and about the education system. Unfortunately the intimidation of Jon’s employer worked and Jon lost his job. (Clearly, now that the police have admitted their direct intervention to get Jon sacked, he is in a good position to seek legal redress and financial compensation).
But the intimidation didn’t stop there. Last August officers from Avon and Somerset Constabulary informed Hydra Books, the local community bookshop, that they had forced the company – Bytemark – that manages the bookshop’s email, to allow them to monitor and read all their communications. The official reason given for this was that at least one of those associated with the bookshop were known to be linked to Bristol Indymedia, which was subsequently closed down after a police raid. This is the third time local police have taken action of this kind: in September 2005 the Bristol Indymedia server was also seized and in October 2004 the FBI organised the seizure of Indymedia’s UK servers (see Postscript at end of this article). In each of these occasions, police action equated to censorship.
Members of a local legal advice group – Bristol Defendant Solidarity – have also been targeted. Police raided the home of one member of BDS – Alan (full name withheld) – and seized his computer equipment, though no charges were subsequently made. Their mission, presumably, was to to gather as much information as possible on the local activist community. Again, legal recompense is due.
However local community activists are refusing to be bowed by this police campaign: last October twenty activists paid a visit to the CID and Special Investigations building in Bristol in protest. In 2015, at a time when the world’s attention was drawn to the importance of a free press, these activists are making their own ‘JeSuisCharlie’ stand (see also Statement below).
Note re blacklisting… Of course, over many decades police liaised with employers and blacklisting organisations, such as the Economic League and its successor, the Consulting Association, to blacklist members of trade unions and political protesters. This liaison was informal and covert. Eventually the Consulting Association was forced to close down after an intervention by the ICO (Information Commissioners Office) showed that the organisation had breached data information legislation. In the years following, parliamentary inquiries in Scotland advised that blacklisting should not be tolerated and any business shown to be practising blacklisting would not be allowed to receive public sector contracts. However, blacklisting is still rife across the UK and today is largely conducted by so-called vetting companies, as well as via HR departments and government agencies and government-funded organisations, large and small. But in Avon and Somerset – and no doubt elsewhere – police are clearly not worried by the revelations that they are directly involved in blacklisting. A worrying development, to say the least.
Statement issued by BDS
Police in Bristol appear to be stepping up their so far fruitless efforts to find individual anarchists and those that they think are responsible for property destruction actions over the last few years in Bristol. One year after their firearms training centre at Portishead was burnt down, they have turned to desperate measures to try and get any scrap of useful information.
They have made a number of arrests, detained people at airports, and raided people’s homes. The majority of people targeted have not even been charged with a crime, and we do not know of anyone who has been successfully prosecuted. Further, officers from CID have recently visited people at their homes under the pretext of having “a friendly chat”. Not surprisingly, they have been met with a resounding wall of silence with no cups of tea involved, as most good people understand the importance of not getting drawn into conversations with the police. Even if any one of the people recently harassed by these visits knew anything about these actions or the people involved, we are confident that common sense and solidarity would prevail and the police would get the sum total of zero information. Anything else would be working for the police.
These home visits, arrests, searches and requests to snitch are not just about information and evidence gathering. They have as much to do with a concerted effort to intimidate and divide us all. A big part of their plan is to scare people into inaction and to create divisions between us. They hope to get us blaming each other for increased surveillance to the point where someone falls for their lies and starts talking to the bad guys. These are tactics that have been used against social movements in countless places and times.
But they won’t work here in Bristol. None of us will ever co-operate with those whose job it is, all in the name of “security” and “safety”, to defend the rich and powerful while keeping us down.
We know that we are not the only people who face repression from the police – in no way do we want to compare what is happening to us to the things they are doing to others, for example their systematic use of anti-terrorism powers against people they see as Muslim. We oppose all police brutality and harassment, whoever they do it to. We also understand the need to stick together in the face of state control and repression. Anarchists and others targeted by the police have a wide range of opinions and preferred tactics, but we know who our comrades are and recognise the enemies at our front doors.
- Bristol Defendant Solidarity
- Bristol Anarchist Black Cross
- South Wales Anarchists
- Bristol Solidarity Network
- Bristol Legal Observer Network
- Bristol SolFed
- Kebele Social Centre
- Riot Ska Records
- Rising Tide
- Bristol Hunt Saboteurs
- Empty Cages Collective
- Bristol AFed
- Bristol Animal Rights Collective
Postscript… In October 2004, a pair of UK servers used by Indymedia were seized a week before the European Social Forum. The servers were taken from the London offices of hosting firm Rackspace after the latter was served with a controversial US warrant. The FBI apparently acting under a US-UK treaty on behalf of Switzerland and/or Italy to seize the hardware, which was subsequently returned. Swiss authorities reportedly said the data could help its investigation of Indymedia’s coverage of the 2003 G8 in Evian but the server was also thought to include correspondence with lawyers involved in the case against Genoa police related to a 2001 G8 summit in the city.